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Midnite Movies Double Feature:

Cry OF THE Banshee
Murders IN THE Rue Morgue

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

MGM has paired two of the later American International horror films directed by Gordon Hessler, whose work was previously displayed on the double bill The Oblong Box and Scream and Scream Again. Neither of those were classics, but they fare much better than the features on this disc, which will frankly be a tough program to sit through for all but the most dedicated fans of the horror genre.

Cry of the Banshee
MGM Home Entertainment
1970 / color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 87 91 min. / Street Date April 1, 2003 / $14.98
Starring Vincent Price, Hilary Heath, Carl Rigg, Patrick Mower, Essy Persson, Marshall Jones, Elisabeth Bergner, Stephen Chase, Sally Geeson, Michael Elphick Hugh Griffith, Robert Hutton
Cinematography John Coquillon
Production Designer George Provis
Editor Oswald Hafenrichter
Original Music Les Baxter, Wilfred Josephs
Written by Tim Kelly and Christopher Wicking
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Gordon Hessler, Louis M. Heyward
Directed by Gordon Hessler

Murders in the Rue Morgue
MGM Home Entertainment
1971 / color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 87 98 min. / Street Date April 1, 2003 / $14.98
Starring Jason Robards, Herbert Lom, Christine Kaufmann, Adolfo Celi, Maria Perschy, Michael Dunn, Lilli Palmer, Peter Arne, Rosalind Elliot, Marshall Jones
Cinematography Manuel Berenguer
Production Designer José Luis Galicia
Editor Max Benedict
Original Music Waldo de los Ríos
Written by Christopher Wicking and Henry Slesar
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Louis M. Heyward, James H. Nicholson
Directed by Gordon Hessler

1970's Cry of the Banshee is an exploitative rehash of elements from the superior Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General, aka The Conqueror Worm. Vincent Price returns as a 16th century magistrate who amuses himself with petty cruelties while seeking witches to torture and burn. His rakehell sons contribute by terrorizing the villagers and ravaging serving girls at the inn. His daughter (Hilary Dwyer, returned from Witchfinder) has a beau suspected of witchcraft because of his gentle ways with animals.

Nary a scene goes by without some poor actress having her top ripped off or yet another bit of unconvincing bloodshed. Hence a dullness sets in, as it is impossible to tell whether the actors are bad or just defeated by a relentlessly bad story.

Christopher Wicking's perfunctory script has Price and his sons attacking some forest wikkan-type activity overseen by a bonafide sorceress, Oona (silent German star Elizabeth Bergner). She swears revenge, which comes by quasi-supernatural means. A dozen or more phony burnings and throat-slittings later, it ends with Price running in terror, and most of his wicked family dead. The script works at depicting the reign of terror in the family, which includes several 'good' members, but can't generate much interest.

What really does the film in, is a distinct lack of style. The reasonably attractive lighting doesn't suit the subject matter. Director Hessler's blocking is by the numbers and arbitrary.

Also in the cast is sex star Essy Persson, who makes little impression as Price's traumatized wife. The show opens with a Monty Python-like animated title sequence, with Price's head splitting open to emit a flood of demons. It seems unintentionally funny, until it turns out to have been created by Terry Gilliam himself. Then we don't know what to think of it.

This DVD appears to restore 4 minutes to the theatrical version. It is actually Gordon Hessler's director's cut, which is different from AIP's U.S. theatrical cut. Besides the Terry Gilliam credits, it has different music (Wilfred Josephs, instead of Les Baxter) and some extra nudity and violence. Hessler's cut was released before on home video by Orion, so many fans may already have seen it. (Thanks to Gary Teetzel for this last info.)

The second feature is 1971's Murders in the Rue Morgue, which re-premiered on cable television last year with a big surprise for genre fans. The original release was rudely re-edited, losing eleven minutes, and the film has been considered a lost masterpiece, especially after the rave reviews given it in books like Phil Hardy's Encyclopedia of Horror Movies. This is the long 98 minute cut.

On the page, the film sounds as if it might focus a number of interesting themes. It certainly has an impressive cast. There's a play within a play concerning a stage adaptation of Poe's tale performed by a Guignol-like Paris troupe headed by Jason Robards, Jr.. His wife Madeleine (Christine Kaufmann of Town Without Pity) has recurring nightmares, and for good reason. Years ago, actor Rene Marot (Herbert Lom) was horribly disfigured on stage. Despite the pleas of his lover, Christine's mother (Lili Palmer), Marot committed suicide. But now Marot is back (surprise) murdering members and ex-members of the company left and right: prostitute Genevre (Maria Perschy), escape artist Luigi Orsini (Marshall Jones, of Scream and Scream Again and Cry of the Banshee), etc. Police commissioner Adolfo Celi suspects Robards.

The on-stage Guignol gore mirrors the killings at large (often done by acid) and Kaufmann's dreams blend with Robard's flashbacks in what could form an interesting pattern. But the plodding script (by Wicking again) fails to make any of this exciting or suspenseful, despite nice touches like the love of dwarf Michael Dunn for Kaufmann, or the Vertigo-ish possibilities in a nightmare scenario that keeps repeating tragedies. As we know from the start that Lom, bemasked as in Phantom of the Opera, is just having an illogical revenge, the plot never begins to find a grip. The actors haven't much to work with, and the great actor Robards seems particularly uninvolved.

Once again, if the film had anything interesting to look at, all of the above might be less important. But the Spanish-produced movie has overlit sets and no atmosphere whatsoever. The ape-suit on view is the same one seen in the previous year's Trog, itself a hand-me-down from 2001. Hessler's camera again fails to find anything to express, and scenes fumble by without making an impact. In one scene of Marot running through the Paris streets, Herbert Lom's stunt double is so clearly identifiable that for a few seconds we get the mistaken impression that somebody else might be the guilty party. This restored version, miraculously spared by AIP's poor vaulting system, is surely better than the chopped-up theatrical cut. That reportedly used AIP's bad gimmick of tinting scenes in bright colors, and garbled the ending. But this original is still not a good picture, and will be quickly forgotten.

The enhanced transfers on these titles are excellent, making each look like new, which will be good news to Vincent Price and horror completists. Each has a trailer and subs in French, Spanish and English. My copy of the flipper disc has a flawed Cry of the Banshee side; it stalled and jumped around in the movie several times and eventually had to be ejected. I trust this is an individual bum copy.

Each title has a short subject produced by MGM's in-house special features producer Greg Carson. Director Gordon Hessler, whose career began on Alfred Hitchcock's television show, is interviewed on both films. His Banshee talk goes on far too long, but the Morgue short subject is better. It's a rare treat to hear a mostly unadmired genre director like Hessler have his say.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Cry of the Banshee rates:
Movie: Fair-
Video: Excellent (flipper disc)
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer, 'A Devilish Tale of Poe' interview doc with Gordon Hessler
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 17, 2003

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Murders in the Rue Morgue rates:
Movie: Fair+
Video: Excellent (flipper disc)
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer, 'Stage Tricks & Screen Frights' interview doc with Gordon Hessler
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 17, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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